ATM keypad microbes reveal communities in New York City

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ATM keypads in New York City can reveal the makeup of communities living within the city, according to a study published in mSphere. ATM keypads house microbes from household surfaces, human skin and pieces of food, giving insight to the demographics of their users.

The dispersion of microbes in metropolitan areas is not well understood. The “urban microbiome” can contain a blend of human-related and environmental taxa, or a community of one or more populations of organisms that create a group.

Scientists from New York University aimed to inspect the biodiversity and biogeography of prokaryotic microbes, or unicellular organisms that lack a nucleus, as well as eukaryotic microbes, or living organisms that have a nucleus. Microbial swab samples were taken from 66 ATMs in eight neighborhoods over three New York City boroughs in June and July of  2014. The boroughs were Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens.

The scientists used machines from Central Harlem South, Chinatown, Flushing, Kips Bay, Marble Hill Inwood, Midtown, South Ozone Park and West Brighton. In the boroughs, 62 ATMs were inside buildings and four ATMs were in outside venues.

The goal was to collect information from diverse ethnic areas, defined by the New York City Department of City Planning as neighborhood tabulation areas.

Researchers hoped to characterize the variety of prokaryotic and eukaryotic microbes by taking specimens from ATMs located in diverse communities so that they could learn more about urban microbiomes. The study categorized microbial assortments on ATM keypads, but the researchers could not track active versus inactive microbes. Researchers could not classify remaining species from visible species, or microbes carried through air.

The results proved that ATM keypads gain microbes from different sources, which ultimately make up human microbiomes and organisms. The DNA acquired from ATM keypads gives a documentation of human behavior and the environmental origin of microbes.

The researchers’ inquiry uncovered a range of human skin microbes. The most recurrent origins of microbes were from kitchens, pillows, restrooms and televisions. There were additional viruses from bony fish, chicken and mollusks. ATM keypads in laundromats and stores had the largest volumes of Lactobacillales, or lactic acid bacteria, which is typically found in decaying plants or milk. Manhattan keypads had the highest level of Xeromyces bisporus, a biomarker connected to rotting baked goods. There was no distinction found in the ATMs that were outdoors as opposed to those that were indoors.

ATM keypads are used by hundreds of people each day, and can hold a wide sampling of microbes from a particular area. Photo by: Connor Henchey

The study disclosed that there was low microbial diversity and no noticeable congregation of diversity on ATM keypads. Source Tracker was incapable of pointing out the source environment for the taxa, although eukaryotic microbe groups were found to have mostly fungal taxa. Moreover, the eukaryotic microbes were a part of a similar set that included free-living and infective taxa.

This deficiency of groupings was constant in both prokaryotic and eukaryotic files, most likely because ATMs are heavily used in fast-paced environments such as New York City and could be confined to human-driven homogenization of the microbes on keypads. The daily cleaning of these machines can further wipe out microbes, limiting the accumulation of bacteria.

Short-lived usage of ATMs by commuters, tourists or nonresidents decreases the microbes that are linked to that specific neighborhood.